by Nathan Baca
As David Werner, chair of the English department begins his Monday afternoon Shakespeare class, he looks around the classroom at his students. The undergraduates in this class are struggling though, to receive their associate’s degree in the hope of forging ahead in their respective careers.
Werner continues his observation and realizes two more facts that others might consider unusual. First, all of the students in his class are men. Secondly, this classroom is located deep inside the Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility.
“The University believes that service is a primary goal of the educated person.” The mission statement of ULV provides the driving force behind Werner’s commitment as director of Educational Programs in Correctional Institutions (EPIC).
Fresh from Claremont Graduate School in 1976, Werner came upon the EPIC program “by accident.” His first assignment for ULV began in the challenging field of post-secondary education in prison.
Contracted by the State of California for the past 28 years, instructors from local universities have visited the 1,400 bed, medium-high level security facility in Chino to provide a range of classes to inmates ages 18-25. In that span of time, the EPIC program has reduced the percentage of inmates who return to prison for repeat offenses from 75 percent to 20 percent of those who complete their degrees through EPIC classes.
In describing his students, Werner said, “The program is completely voluntary; the students are most happy to be there, they see it as a rare privilege. The fact is they are extremely well behaved and they are very appreciative, they take care of the program.”
Despite this dramatic improvement in recidivism rates, Werner and his fellow instructors meet unexpected obstacles from facility workers.
“The only real obstacles we face are from within the prison institution,” said Werner. “You would expect the prison to be a very structured place, but in fact, it’s very whimsical. It’s where things happen for no reason and work is done merely for the sake of work.”
Werner has studied prison life and conditions since first teaching the EPIC program. His findings were compiled in his text, “Correctional Education, Theory and Practice.” He added, “Imagine what its like to live in that kind of institution, what it teaches you is that life is completely unpredictable. Essentially, you teach somebody for four or five years that life is unpredictable and then release them; then what you get is chaos once they’re out.”
Teaching philosophies remain the same no matter where the classroom happens to be located. However, the unique nature of students in the EPIC program require their instructors to “be on their toes a little more.” That alone gives some incoming educators a pause, but for Werner it has come to define how he approaches his profession. “The experience has changed my way of teaching. It has made me a better person.”
The EPIC program has made many of the former inmates better people as well. Former students have received degrees from UC Irvine, USC, UC Santa Barbara and UCLA, amongst others. One former student completed a medical anthropology program at UC Berkeley with nearly a 4.0 G.P.A. and spent two years as a graduate working with indigenous people in the Philippines. Another student graduated Summa Cum Laude from Cal State Dominguez Hills and is currently working at a drug rehabilitation center.
When challenges and fulfillment, obstacles and the satisfaction, of teaching in prison are added up, David Werner leans back in his chair and sums it up with, “It’s a hoot.”
HUM 100 — Quest For Values — T — J. Murphy
PHIL 230 — Intro To Ethics — R — J. Murphy
Academic Classes: Lower Division
ENG 340 — Shakespeare — M — D. Werner
HIST 413 — U.S. History since WWII — W — P. Castruita
NASC 103 — Nat. Sci. Human Env. — R — F. Fox
ENG 110 — College Writing A — F — D. Dirks
Academic Classes: Upper Division
HIST 316 — California History — M — P. Castruita
SPCM 271 — Arg. & Debate — T — D. Dirks
MATH 105 — Precalculus — W — G. Westfahl
PSYCH 311 — Psych. Of Incarceration — F — E.M. Abdulmumin